Patrick: State prepared for flu crisis, urges people to get shots

Andy Metzger, State House News Service
Jan. 10, 2013

The entire state is in the midst of what appears to be a higher-than-usual influenza epidemic, but state officials said there is no need to declare a public health emergency as Boston Mayor Tom Menino did yesterday.

“It’s important to highlight that Massachusetts is one of more than two dozen states that are experiencing high levels of flu activity,” said interim Public Health Commissioner Lauren Smith at a press conference on Thursday. “We feel like we have a good handle on it. We prepared for this. So we don’t feel there’s any need at this point to declare a state of emergency.”

Gov. Deval Patrick urged people to get a flu vaccination, which he said is free even for people without health coverage.

“This is serious. There is a heightened level of flu activity across the state,” Patrick said. “But we’re prepared. There is not a shortage of vaccine.”

Perhaps indicating how present the flu is on people’s minds, when Patrick experienced some audio feedback while speaking he assured the gathered reporters, “It’s not the flu,” eliciting laughter.

The Department of Public Health has “planned well” and distributed 750,000 doses of the vaccine around the state, Smith said. This year’s vaccine is better matched to the flu strain than in other years, said Smith, who said flu outbreaks have “a pace and cadence of their own.” The department has also worked with hospitals and other providers to ensure workers are using “effective strategies around mitigating the transmission of the flu in those health care settings.”

There is some encouraging data from school nurses and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Smith said.

“We should be reassured that in fact despite the increased level of flu activity, we are not seeing an across-the-board increase in school absenteeism,” Smith said. “That in fact suggests that the significant efforts that municipalities and pediatric providers have done in ensuring that as many children as possible get the flu vaccine, as they’re recommended to do, has in fact borne the benefits that we can see now.”

A total of 18 people with flu-like symptoms have died, according to Bureau of Infectious Disease Director Kevin Cranston, who briefed reporters on Wednesday.

DPH is working with local boards of health to offer additional public flu clinics. Last year the Legislature passed a bill that will require education facilities to provide information to parents about the benefit of annual immunization, and Patrick signed the bill (H 3948) into law this week.

Boston announced that it would be reaching out to 45,000 residents, including 27,000 seniors, through its automated call system, to encourage people to visit free flu clinics this weekend.

“I got my flu shot and I’m asking every Boston resident over the age of six months to do the same,” Menino said in a statement. Since Oct. 1, 2012, Boston has had about 700 confirmed cases of flu and four elderly residents have died from it, according to the city. During last year’s mild flu season, Boston recorded a total of 70 cases.